Inside the mind of Hieronymus Bogs
Outsider artist and musician chooses creation over commodity
Bogs’ alter ego, Hieronymus Bogs, finds himself inside sixteenth-century painter Hieronymus Bosch’s "Musician’s Hell."
Photo illustration by Josh Flanigan and David Ditzel
Art is the residue of the mind. It’s just the junk that comes out. It’s just the leftovers. I feel like the real power of it—it’s not those things that are gonna fade away like material things.
~ Hieronymus Bogs
On a balmy Friday night, a small group of Rochester artists assemble their wares at The Yards, a stark second-story gallery space without air conditioning located in the Rochester Public Market. The weathered wooden floorboards and high iron support beams along the ceiling suggest post-industrial desolation, an ambiance that will soon be replaced by the bustle of the appropriately titled “Yard(s)Sale!” the next morning. Ceramic sake mugs, custom notebooks, homemade necklaces made from old photographs, and even a vintage piece of pre-owned orthodontia begin to populate the folding tables like so many eclectic new neighbors.
One table in this grouping sticks out for its ragged, rough-hewn, and humble appearance. At this table is a man the local arts community knows simply as Bogs. The quietly charismatic frontman of the psychedelic Americana outfit Bogs Visionary Orchestra sits amid an array of found-object sculptures he simply calls mini sculptures. Whenever the banjoist and songwriter performs solo, he bills himself as Hieronymous Bogs.
A second life for history’s detritus
In one sculpture, a hodgepodge of trinkets—including a pocket-size crucifix, miniature toy rocking horse, a disembodied doll head, and numerous plastic buttons—is housed haphazardly in a clear plastic container atop an unadorned wooden base. In a second piece, a cracked glass orb, repaired with transparent packing tape, contains what looks like an autumn still life that has sprung up organically; a small olive green bust depicting a stoic boy dominates a landscape of toy deer, wild flowers, feathers, and keys.
“When I look at these used materials, I get this idea: Things are changing, things are getting old. Time is eroding materials. Things get dusty,” explains Bogs. “There’s just that connection to deterioration that I think I’m interested in—and also reusing things: something had a purpose before. This little figurine sat on someone’s shelf for years and years, and now the head is broken, and I’m using it on my sculpture for something else.”
Rich imagery and loaded symbolism are untethered to any particular narrative. Any vestiges of a polished aesthetic presentation appear to have been dulled, obscured, or abandoned long ago. These assemblage pieces lack the fixed quality of traditional sculpture in that the individual components can be moved around or removed from the work entirely. “A lot of people have asked me about those pieces. They always ask me, ‘Are you gonna glue that down?’” he says. “Even [my wife] Lisa asked me about it. I just feel like if I glue it down, then it’s a piece of artwork. I want it to feel a little more flexible. I’m not sure if it’s artwork.”
A portrait of Bogs as a young man
Having grown up in the Latino neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in the late seventies and early eighties, the boy who would be Bogs knew that, by the time he was six years old, he would devote his life to making things. In addition to drawing, his artistic interests manifested themselves in the individualistic, outsider-centric mediums of graffiti art and skateboarding. While attending college at Parsons School of Design, he initially studied illustration before switching to fine art but lost interest in the career paths that both avenues seemed to offer.
“I was definitely interested in outsider art because they were artists making things on their own terms,” says Bogs. “I just see the potential of making art because you want to and using your own materials and using your own space. I don’t exactly see the need for doing it in terms of a gallery. I’d be fine to show work in a gallery, but [that’s] just more of a lifestyle. I just want to live making art. The technical aspect of cultivating a fine-art career is a whole other thing.”
After college, Bogs began teaching art to children throughout New York City. “My thing was convincing them, ‘Hey, you’re an artist. So here are some materials, and let’s make something because you’re an artist.’”
It wasn’t until he first heard Harry Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music that Bogs internalized this message in relation to creating music. He cites the collection’s “primitive country” songs performed by unconventional and idiosyncratic voices that were not necessarily pretty or in tune.
“The anthology kinda helped tip it for me, where [beforehand] I found music in general was unapproachable because I didn’t really comprehend it,” says Bogs. “It was a little too complicated and stylized. So I just saw it as a product. I didn’t really see it as a form. But when I heard the anthology, kind of the roughness and the simplicity of it, I was like, ‘I can write words, so I can write songs.’”
Banjo in hand
As with the visual art, the songs of Bogs Visionary Orchestra convey a tone of fallibility, impermanence, and decay. Live performances center around Bogs’s straightforward banjo playing and earnest, slightly reedy tenor voice that he indiscriminately drenches in reverb. The strength of musicianship among the band’s ever-shifting roster of players is grounded in Bogs’s intentionally vulnerable and scaled-back approach. “How can I get more primitive in my song writing? How can I get more simple and direct?” thinks the artist aloud.
“I wanna strip away a lot of the garbage and just get really concise. I feel successful when I’m doing that.”
This approach is most evident on songs like “It’s Not Easy To Give Thanks,” in which the incantational melody is rooted to a single chord that is virtually unchanging throughout. This drone effect is also prevalent on “Maladroits Union,” perhaps the most definitive declaration of the artist’s modus operandi:
What we get we don’t deserve, in the eyes of those who choose
We believe in our own worth, in imperfection’s radiant truth
Join the Maladroits Union
Won’t you join? Please, won’t you join?
A defiance of form
There is something deeply disarming about a visual artist who refuses to label his work art, a musician who writes songs that make no assertions about the proficiency of his playing, a person who gifts an audience with tangible objects and recognizable sounds, only to minimize their importance as finished products worthy of reverence. Whether through his visual mini sculptures or his musical Sketches, a trio of home recordings which Bogs made available for free download on his website in early summer, the prevailing emphasis is placed on engaging with the creative process itself, before the work is actually “finished.”
Bogs seems to be proposing a radical shift in how we personally value artistic endeavors; the resulting object that we label as art is not nearly as significant as the creative process that birthed it. “I’m more concerned with letting people know that they can do stuff, that they can make stuff, that it’s important to do that, especially when you’re constantly buying other people’s things,” says Bogs. “You’re constantly watching other people’s movies, seeing other people’s commercials, all your furniture. Everything’s made by somebody else. It’s so important that people think, ‘I can make, I can do. I don’t have to buy a book, I could actually start to write a book.’”
“More-phine” at the market
Back at the Yard(s)Sale!, the Saturday sun bathes the studio in natural light. A mid-morning crowd mills about. Prospective art owners peruse the wide variety of items for sale and quietly talk amongst themselves. Amid this moderate din of merchandise-on-the-move, there is one table that has been left unmanned. The art objects sit solitarily, while the person who made them stands on a multicolored, patchwork quilt at the front of the room, picking at his banjo. The unassuming musician begins to sing an earnest and haunting melody, married to a softly lilting waltz:
More-phine, more-phine, more-phine
More-phine ball and chain
I give all I have for you,
now give me what I crave
After what amounted to a multiset performance spanning roughly six hours, Bogs takes stock of the day’s take: He’s sold numerous CDs, but none of the sculptures have found new homes. But how do you market something that is intrinsically unmarketable? How do you sell an artwork whose value is incapable of being monetized?
There is something fittingly poetic, yet inherently tragic about this conundrum, which can best be described as a “Bogsian dilemma.”